A comment on my previous post referred to the “if you don’t have kids, you don’t understand” comments we are often subject to. There’s a video doing the rounds on FB – a British comedian doing a skit about the difficulties of raising children, and how people without children don’t know. “They think they know what they’re talking about,” he says, “but they have NO IDEA.” Yes, he shouts these words to emphasise the stupidity and ignorance of people without children.
I've heard variations of this over and over again. And today, I’m standing up to say that yes, we do know, and we do understand. No, we may never have experienced parenthood in the way you have. But we know what you’re going through. How could we not? We are constantly bombarded with the messages about how hard being a parent is, and with the accompanying messages “if you’re a parent you are superior/deserve a medal/etc.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent say “no-one tells you how hard it is.” … Yes, they do. (I want to shout). Everyone tells you how hard it is. I know, how come you didn’t know? Or perhaps you just didn’t want to know?
For example, we are constantly bombarded with the “you don’t know tired until you have a baby/two babies/etc” message. We understand that you may have weeks, months or even years of severe sleep deprivation. It was one of the things I was very worried about (loving and needing sleep as I do) when I was on my quest to have children. I’ve had to wake enough at 3 am for work purposes to know that a) I don’t – to put it mildly - like it one bit, and b) I would find it hard to cope with on a regular basis. I’ve had to work with no sleep or just an hour or two of sleep, so I know that I would find it incredibly difficult. I shudder to imagine how difficult it would be to do that day after day, week after week. I understand. I sympathise. I just haven’t experienced it.
Just as we know that a toddler can be beyond demanding, that teenagers can be downright unpleasant, how worrying pre-teens can be, and that an ill child must be distressing. We know that. We've all experienced babysitting or visiting with you and your children, and/or hearing your stories about your children. We've seen you struggle, often juggling some or all of the above situations at the same time, and we know that there must also be a multitude of times when you've struggled that you haven’t shared with us or asked for support. We know this. We haven’t experienced it. But we can imagine the extent of it. We spend a few hours in your company with your children, and we imagine those few hours extend into days, weeks, months and years – with better hours/days and with worse.
You see, just because we don’t have children doesn't mean we are stupid, naive, unobservant or unsympathetic. We know it is hard. We know it changes your priorities, your focus, the way you think. Many of us wanted this. Yet you constantly say “people who don’t have children don’t understand.” Why?
I think there are two answers to this.
First, I suspect that parents are saying this to a different group. When they mean “childless” or “people without kids” they tend to refer to “people who don’t have kids yet.” The comedy video for example is talking to people who might be thinking about having children. And many people (not all) focus on the positives of parenthood, not the difficulties, when they’re making the decision to have children. It is only natural.
I do have to say though that when we are trying to conceive, especially when we are having difficulties, or have suffered loss, we often manage to convince ourselves that everything will be rosy, our lives will be perfect when we get pregnant/baby arrives. It’s what drives us to continue trying. Someone recently talked about having her children and then “getting on with the rest of her life.” As if if her life hadn’t begun yet, even as she went through infertility and growth and job changes. As if all troubles would melt away once her child arrived. Whilst most of us know intellectually that having children isn’t the antidote to our woes, in the midst of the trying-to-conceive frenzy, especially in the midst of infertility, it is easy to forget this. I can’t tell you the number of times I have heard (read) women say that they will never be happy unless they are pregnant or have their baby. And perhaps it is in response to this rose-coloured glasses view of parenthood that many parents – who themselves feel as if they are deep in the trenches of parenthood - feel the need to say “you don’t understand.”
Those of us who are on the other side, however, know that having children isn’t all rosy, in the same way we know that not having children isn’t a terrible thing. In coming to terms with our own situations, we are forced to take off those rose-coloured glasses, to see our own lives objectively and to embrace what is positive. And in doing that, we become (I believe) much more attuned to the difficulties of parenthood too. Looking at the positives of our lives helps us heal and blossom. And in doing this we realise we might be lucky not to have to deal with the many difficulties of parenthood. In time, we are able to become more empathetic to those who have children. Until that moment when they say “you don’t understand” and push us away, just when we’re prepared to offer support.
Because the second reason I think parents want to say “you don’t understand” to us, the childless, is more complicated. There is a well-known human trait that makes people feel good when they make others feel small (studies for example show that people enjoy rewards more when others don’t have it). It builds some people up, makes them feel superior, makes them doubt themselves less, and perhaps convinces them that they made the right decision, even in the midst of despair (and perhaps doubt) at the problems and exhaustion and worry. (I’m not saying that being a parent is full of despair. I am saying that parents frequently and freely admit that there are moments, hours, days, or more of despair alongside the love and pride and joy and all the other emotions of parenthood.)
Rather than bristling at the condescension, or perhaps I should say more accurately, after I have stopped bristling at the condescension, I prefer to see this another way. I see it as a plea for empathy, a plea to find comfort from others who have been through this and can say “yes, we know,” a plea to find others helping them feel less alone in finding this difficult. This explains why the comedy video is so popular. I can understand that and I feel sympathy for it.
But why, in searching for that empathy, is it necessary to be so condescending? A condescension and discrimination that is incredibly common, endorsed and legitimised by society in general. But do parents really want to scorn and push away those who could be their biggest supports, who could give them some adult only time, who could be beneficial influences in their children’s lives? I don’t know. I'm sure they don’t know either. I suspect they’re just too tired, too focused on getting through the day, to realise what they’re doing.